October 14 marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. There will be a new round of encomiums to celebrate the man, but it is unlikely any will surpass the breathless tribute for the 65th anniversary by General Wesley Clark in his foreword to the military historian Charles Messenger's Rommel in Palgrave Macmillan's Great Generals series:
"No foreign general has ever quite inspired as much passion, curiosity and respect among Americans," General Clark writes, " . . . and still sets the standard for a style of daring, charismatic leadership to which most officers aspire, especially the up and coming leaders of his former adversaries."
Charles Messenger agreed: "Although he had his faults, not least a blindness to the evil of the regime he served, they are outshone by his unique qualities. He will continue to be studied with profit for many years to come."
It took us 150 years to recognize the absurdity of raising statues to deluded generals; so while we are pulling Robert E. Lee off his bronze horse, is it not time to bring an end to glamorizing a man who in both world wars was fervently on the side of the aggressor nation, who commanded Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard -- the Führer's Escort Battalion -- and became Hitler's favorite general?
The adulation of Lee may have played a role in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and an entire century of discrimination against black Americans. What do we get from idolizing a Nazi general (besides millions of impressionable boys eager to be "The Desert Fox" in computer wargames)? A world plagued by neo-Nazis, raising their arms in salute to the same mass murderer Rommel swore an oath to.
Ironically, Erwin Rommel was one of the world's biggest military losers. Despite a few major successes in the most important assignment of his career, in North Africa, where he got his nickname and General Wesley Clark's admiration for his "daring" and "charismatic leadership," Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps was soundly defeated. He went home in disgrace, allowing the Allies to freely cross from North Africa to Italy on their way to ending history's most monstrous regime.
And Rommel failed in his only other important assignment, one with vital consequences for the Third Reich.
"General Field Marshal Rommel, the great retreater, who at one time had 'the gates of Egypt' in his hand, is still the propaganda machine's darling and is being brought out of mothballs. His blemished fame will fill the forgetful ones with hope," wrote the justice inspector Friedrich Kellner in December 1943 when Hitler assigned Rommel to oversee the construction of the Atlantic Wall. The vast fortifications were designed to stop an invasion from across the English Channel. Rommel would have to retreat again, predicted the justice inspector.
(Translation of news clipping:pasted into diary: ROMMEL AT THE ATLANTIC WALL Berlin, December 19.
General Field Marshal Rommel, who the Führer assigned to oversee the defensive readiness of Fortress Europe, meets with General Field Marshal von Rundstedt in his headquarters during Rommel's inspection trip through Denmark. In the middle of the visit, alongside discussions of the fight against the Western powers, the highly decorated Field Marshals prolonged their inspection trip to examine the Atlantic Wall's defensive strength and the intervention force's striking power, a force already in position.
Kellner diary entry below clipping, continued: But Rommel and von Rundstedt, as well as the fabled Atlantic Wall, will not be able to repel the forthcoming Americans and English attacks. The "intervention force's striking power" will have to retreat before the striking power of the unfolding superiority of our enemy. The German army is no match for simultaneous attacks from the east, west, and south. No Rommel and no von Rundstedt--or anyone else--can change that fact.)
Kellner had opposed the Nazis from the beginning. A political organizer for the Social Democrats, he campaigned against them during the short-lived Weimar Republic. When Hitler came to power, Kellner found a position as courthouse manager in the small town of Laubach where he was not known for his political activities. On September 1, 1939, when Hitler ordered his armies into Poland, Kellner began a diary to record Nazi crimes and the German people's willing acceptance of the Nazi agenda. Occasionally he gave voice to his feelings and was written up by the Nazi Local Group Leader as a "bad influence" and placed under surveillance by the Gestapo. Fortunately, Kellner's position in the courthouse kept him and his wife, Pauline, from arbitrary arrest.
Kellner knew Erwin Rommel when Hitler's Escort Battalion was briefly stationed in Laubach in January 1940, just before Rommel's assignment to command the 7th Panzer Division that would soon take part in the invasion of France. In the quest for "lebensraum," the expansion of Germany's borders, and to help Adolf Hitler create a New Order in Europe under Nazi domination, General Erwin Rommel led his tank division from city to city in a brutal attack that forced the cowed French to surrender in a mere six weeks.
"Hitler's Europe will be a police state," wrote Kellner. "And Hitler: Tyranny in its greatest measure."
Kellner was among the very few who considered Erwin Rommel a "braggart" and a failure. The minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, easily persuaded the Germans, who badly needed a hero, of Field Marshal Rommel's special qualities. Strangely enough, Goebbels was assisted by those in the democracies, including Winston Churchill, who had to explain to their voters why they were so slow in countering the German forces. In early 1942 Churchill particularly built up Rommel's military prowess as a cover for Britain's initial defeats by the Afrika Korps. "We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general." Time magazine followed suit by placing the Nazi general on the cover of their July 13, 1942 issue. Then when Rommel and his Korps were conquered, the British victory, with American help, was all the greater for having stopped a legendary "battlefield genius."
One month before the Normandy landing of June 1944, which would be Rommel's last failure, the Nazi general who supposedly inspires "respect among Americans" today, gave these orders to his troops, who were expected to fight to the last man:
"The German soldier understands his clear combat mission. He has new weapons in his hand and is determined to provide the utmost resistance. The collision at the German coastal front will be dreadful for the enemy. Every individual German soldier will then make his contribution to the retribution he owes the Anglo-American ghoul for its criminal and bestial warfare against our homeland."
At war's end, instead of decrying this willing accomplice of Adolf Hitler, who proudly participated with his steel panzers in the Nazis' savage plans, who waited until nearly the end of the war and the deaths of tens of millions before secretly taking a stand against Hitler, we continued the farce of making a hero of him, something we Americans have done with so many bad guys: The Jesse James and Billy the Kid syndrome -- conferring nobility on murderers.
Thus was Erwin Rommel, we are told: a noble man in ignoble circumstances.
Except he was not. Erwin Rommel chose to cast his lot with the morally blind. Now this undeserved status as a tragic hero is over, and we can understand and appreciate why Friedrich Kellner chose this sentence to begin the preface to his diary: "I want to capture in writing the mood and images of my surroundings so people in the future will not be tempted to fabricate some kind of 'Heroic Period' out of these events."
Robert Scott Kellner, grandson of Friedrich Kellner, is a retired English professor who taught at the University of Massachusetts and Texas A&M University. He served six years in the U.S. Navy. He published the diary in its original language in Germany in 2011 and is the editor and translator of My Opposition: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner -- A German against the Third Reich, published by Cambridge University Press, 2018.